Finding shade under the tree

Living in Honduras for the past few months has felt especially difficult and intense. What started as a labor dispute between teachers’ and doctors’ unions and the government has become a multi-sector agitation against government corruption and economic desperation.

Classrooms from elementary to university have been closed at various times, and public hospitals have not been attending patients. Taxi and bus drivers have been occasionally involved in blocking streets and shutting down cities. University students, some of whom graduated in early June with little hope for finding jobs, have marched. Military police have shot at student protests. Commercial trucks have parked outside cities, refusing to enter, and some trucks have been burned during protests. The U.S. Embassy was vandalized and has been partially closed.

A tree at the center of a village built in partnership with Presbyterians near Trinidad de Copan, Honduras.

It is difficult for me to see God in this environment. If God is in the rule of law, there is little of that. If God is in social and economic justice, there is even less. If God is in peace, compromise and goodwill, there is almost none.

Some days I have had to look very closely for the smallest sign of God’s presence. Mark’s gospel gives me an image that I can hold onto: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (4:30-32). What can I take from this seemingly simple image? The kingdom of God is very small. It is planted in earthly soil. It doesn’t necessarily put an end to the burning, life-threatening sun scorching the earth. But it does provide shade, a sanctuary, open for all.

I recently accompanied a delegation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which is completing a General Assembly directive to write a comprehensive study of Central America. In Honduras, we visited a government reception center for migrants deported from North America, heard from individuals and families directly affected by the push and pull factors of the immigration process, and interviewed international officials and organizations working in anti-corruption and social justice.We heard from Joana, a Scalabrinian nun, an immigrant from Brazil herself, who serves migrants at the Honduras government center, which receives up to 10,000 deportees weekly from the United States and Mexico. She and her team of volunteers were once up for four days straight receiving flights of 250 passengers each that arrived at all hours of day and night. Her message as 150 young men and women disembarked wearing U.S. Customs Enforcement-issued gray sweats and white T-shirts, their possessions in garbage bags? “God loves you. I love you. You are worthy of love.” And she gave them coffee, a little food, and a smile.

We witnessed the secondary trauma of a Mennonite social services agency worker who had accompanied October’s much-publicized caravan of migrants through Mexico to the U.S. border. She had walked alongside mothers with babies and people with amputated legs, trying to find them strollers or wheelchairs to replace the ones that had fallen apart after days of constant use. She had tried to provide a little solace for families, making ad-hoc playgrounds for kids while parents looked for a phone, or water, or transportation. She shared a picture of a five year old taking a broom to sweep the dust off the tarp on the ground where her siblings were sleeping while their mother was taking care of errands and gathering food. “The first loss is dignity,” Yanina Romero said.

As I wrote this, my friend and colleague, a Honduras church leader and theological student, was in Mexico. He left Honduras in March, looking for work because low coffee prices left his farm in debt he can’t pay. He was away from his wife’s side for the first time in their marriage. Traveling with a guide he trusted but who was extorting his family for more money for “safe passage” to the United States, my friend was in what seemed to me a hopeless situation. Each day he weighed the risks and rewards of continuing his attempt or returning home. “God is with us, God is here, sister Dori,” he told me on the phone. “I have my Bible with me. The word of God is here among us, and I’m able to share it with lots of people here with me. I have faith.”

A couple of weeks later, my friend’s wife called me with “the best news ever.” Her husband was on his way home. For him, crossing the border was a failed attempt, a financial loss. For her, success was the reunification of her family. “Pray for a job for him,” she said.

The kingdom of God is so much more complex than we imagine. In a bleak and hopeless landscape, we find little spots of light. Amid oppression and desperation, we find the hope cultivated by family connection. We find dignity — shady spots for our nests — under the tree of God’s presence in our created world.

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A year spent learning how to give

“We are learning what we’re capable of,” said Selenia Ordóñez. She and I share an anniversary: Ordóñez and her Presbyterian Women’s team began running a retreat center ministry the same week I was installed as a mission co-worker with the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. For the past year, we have both been learning what we’re capable of.

My job description is “facilitator for theological education and leadership development” within the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. The focus of my first year, although not explicit, has been education and development of the concept of partnership. I see my work as empowering and highlighting the capabilities of the Honduran church and sub-groups, such as the Presbyterian Women, youth groups, lay pastors, and theological students.

During a recent visit, the Presbytery of Carlisle and the Honduran church took a day out of their schedule of home construction to receive training from a local organization on intercultural and international partnership, and to start a process to assess and renew their bilateral relationship. I confess that some of our participants started out skeptical that this training was of any practical value — admittedly, its value was less tangible than building a home from cinderblocks.

A mixed group of Honduran and North American volunteers worked on a home construction project in Puente Jalan, near Guaimaca, Honduras.

Inspired by the training in partnership and mutual concern, the week ended with a Honduran-led initiative that has never happened before: A leader in one of the Honduran congregations gathered volunteers and workmen to join in partnership with the North American volunteer construction crew in building the home of a member of a different congregation. Local presbytery leaders are now encouraged to practice this demonstration of mutuality and partnership more intentionally in their own communities.

Women’s retreat leaders washed the feet of participants at Centro de Retiros Villa de Gracia in January.

In March, the Presbyterian Women of Honduras learned that the U.S.-Honduras partnership has met its goal of raising $189,500 to complete the purchase of the retreat center property that they have been running. The Presbyterian Women of the PC(USA) gave $100,000 from one of their grant programs. The Presbyterian Women of Honduras contributed $520.77 to date. This discrepancy brings to mind the story of the widow’s mite in the gospel of Luke. “As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others.’” But I don’t believe this story in Luke is really about money and economic class. It comes at the end of a lengthy critique of the Temple system that creates inequality, and a warning from Jesus against the traditions of the scribes and other Temple leaders.

Our old ways of worshiping, of maintaining our connection to God, of supporting the activities of the Temple, are not truly just and good. We must examine our traditions and live into a new way of connecting to God that is not entirely financial and unequal. It is telling, I think, that Jesus does not call us all to be like the widow, but he does warn us all against being like the scribes. This story calls us all, rich and poor, to live into a new way of relating to God, to the church, and to ourselves.

This is what the Presbyterian Women of Honduras are doing as they manage a ministry of the church. They are doing so without the direct oversight of a male pastor. They are making decisions for the retreat center based on their understanding of hospitality, mission and ministry. They are seeing and valuing the gifts of ministry that they can contribute, rather than seeing only what they lack. We are transforming our concept of partnership from one of “giver and receiver” to one of mutual work and mutual contribution. Together, we are learning what we’re capable of.

Rethinking that mission trip to Guatemala: advocating for justice, especially in light of U.S. complicity

“There’s a way to go to Guatemala as a tourist and see beautiful places like Antigua and Tikal without ever knowing a genocide took place in that country in the 1980s and 90s and that still today indigenous Mayans face racism, discrimination, environmental degradation, forced disappearance and death.

U.S. intervention in Central Americacontributed to the conditions that have caused so many Guatemalans and Hondurans to leave their homes and travel toward the U.S. border, however unwelcome they are in the eyes of the Trump administration and many of its ardent supporters. Contemporary American, Canadian and European corporations continue to exploit Guatemala with hydroelectric dams, nickel and gold mines, and fruit and coffee companies. These operations take land away from indigenous subsistence farmers, poison the soil and water and impoverish many Mayans even as they enrich oligarchs, politicians and foreign corporations.

Source: Rethinking that mission trip to Guatemala: advocating for justice, especially in light of U.S. complicity

La virgen de las calles

Street ministry in “El Centavo” district of Tegucigalpa, Honduras

There is a prostitute in this photo. She’s the girl in a short skirt and sneakers with a pink barrette in her hair. She’s getting talking-to by her pimp, who is also her mother, who called her over when she started talking to a woman instead of a man who might be convinced to pay for sex. The girl is 12. You can’t see in the photo that the mother/pimp is also toting the 12-year-old’s infant daughter.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

Zephaniah 3:14-15 (NRSV)

Surrounding the pair are other folks who spend nights on the streets as well as ministers and members of the ministry Manos Extendidas. Once a week or so, the ministry serves soup and friendship on the streets at night, attempting to affirm the dignity and humanity of children, youth, addicts, and other abandoned people in some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods of Comayaguela and Tegucigalpa, the twin-city capital of Honduras.

I was there to witness and observe the ministry. I was there to participate in affirmations and the serving of soup. I was told to expect to see what I saw, but I wasn’t prepared. I can’t stop thinking about this girl.

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

Zephaniah 3:16-18 (NRSV)

I was there to witness, and that’s all I could do in that moment. In the following week, I have had trouble sleeping and focusing on my work. I feel worry and guilt. I can’t stop imagining the girl’s life each night.

I am searching for a prayer for this girl. Where is God? Where is the life and justice and grace that we have been promised? 

I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Zephaniah 3:19-20 (NRSV)

Holy God, I turn over this girl to you. I turn over her baby to you. I turn over her mother to you. Lifting them up in prayer and bearing witness to their lives is all I can do. I beg for your grace and tender mercy. Help me forgive, help me to let go. Help me to learn to practice gratitude in the waiting and waiting and waiting for your presence. Help me to see you at work, O God. Help me to see you coming.

The harvest of God’s love

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Looking over the Comayagua valley from the road leaving El Horno.

An Advent reflection on Philippians 1:3-11, written for San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Pastor Juan Rodas, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Honduras, loves to tell the story of how two remote congregations, El Horno and El Sute, joined the denomination. The communities of these churches are at the top of a mountain in the department of Comayagua, Honduras. They are so remote, so small, and so economically poor that the utilities that built electric transmission lines overhead, crossing the mountaintop, didn’t bother to connect the communities to the lines. Most residents are of indigenous Lenca descent and are farmers, of coffee, mostly, and of corn, beans, and other staples. There are roads, but not good ones, so most people walk, or if they’re well-off, ride mules or horses. It’s a five-hour walk to the nearest paved road.

When Pastor Juan began visiting, the churches had already been established, but they were hoping for more connection and were seeking to join a larger denomination. Pastor Juan and his colleagues had visited several times to assess the viability of the tiny communities joining the Presbyterian denomination. At a meeting of the denomination’s board, they had decided that the communities were, sadly, too remote and would stretch the small denomination too thinly. At the time there were only about 20 congregations nationwide. The denomination’s leaders couldn’t imagine committing to the pastoral presence needed in such a remote place.

Pastor Juan and his father-in-law, Pastor Edin Samayoa, arrived in El Horno after walking five or six hours, with the intention of informing the congregations’ leadership of the decision. Some church elders sat and had coffee with the pastors and related the story of how their churches came to be. The missionaries who came to evangelize years prior had been from a larger denomination. They had spent the time they needed to preach the gospel in the towns, but when it came time for the churches to become independent, the missionaries left, saying they couldn’t join the larger denomination because the communities “no son rentables.” In English: The communities weren’t profitable. They wouldn’t be worth the investment of time and effort of a larger denomination. El Horno and El Sute were drains on the resources of the missionaries.

When Pastor Juan tells this story, he nearly always has tears in his eyes. He says that he changed his mind on the spot and couldn’t see his way to telling the dedicated Christians of El Sute and El Horno that they weren’t worth his time. Pastors Edin and Juan returned to the leadership of the denomination with the news that they had two new congregations. “What? I thought we decided the opposite!” they protested.

God’s call to us is not one of economy or feasibility, Pastor Juan says. God’s call to us is one of abundant and merciful love. We are called not to the places in the world that are profitable, but to the places in the world where there is need of love.

I love the affection that Paul shows for the church in Philippi; it reminds me of Pastor Juan’s affection for El Horno and El Sute. “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight…having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” How telling that the harvest he speaks of is not of financial or demographic increase but of righteousness, glory, and praise.

After 10 or 15 years, the churches of El Sute and El Horno are shining examples of community cooperation and unity. They are represented in the denomination’s leadership. They have collaborated with U.S. Presbyterians and local Roman Catholic families to install solar panels and water purification systems in their communities. The students they send to the denomination’s theological education programs are the most dedicated and studious. The presence of the churches has helped encourage investment in coffee and food production rather than in illegal drugs. Family unity and cohesion has increased.

El Horno and El Sute are examples of the transformative power of God’s love.

On the caravan and those left behind

In last half of the month of October, I passed not a day without hearing conversations about “la caravana” that is making its way from Honduras towards the United States. Sometimes I was part of the conversation; friends and acquaintances would ask me, the only U.S. citizen in the room, what I thought about the caravan, whether I voted for Donald Trump in 2016, how I would change migration laws in the United States if I could. Many in Honduras are divided about the caravan. Mothers express heartbreak and judgment about parents who are carrying toddlers and babies on the dangerous journey, or the same about parents who left their toddlers and babies behind. Young people debate whether they would have gone, given the chance, or express either relief or regret that they didn’t take the chance.

What most everyone agrees is that back here in Honduras, there is very little opportunity for jobs, education, improvement. Two-thirds of people are underemployed. Two-thirds of people live under the poverty line.

The most heartbreaking part of this “caravan” of migrants for me is to see the level to which politicians, governments, media and the powerful are using the “plight” of migrants to amplify their own interests and messaging. The timing of the caravan is no accident, but it is not the first, nor is it a sudden trend or surge. Migration between Central America and the U.S. has been a steady trend since the 1980s, and actually in recent years has decreased, for various reasons.

The media in Honduras, all of which is quite politically biased, is playing the caravan of migrants to either right- or left-wing advantage. The left-wing media is following the caravan daily and blaming the current government for the economic hardship and violence that the migrants are “fleeing.” The right-wing media, in support of the current government, is playing up the difficulty of the journey and the U.S. government’s opposition and threats to cut off U.S. AID and military funding, on which Honduras is dependent. They’re attempting to guilt and shame migrants by saying their choice is harming Honduras. They have arrested at least one caravan organizer, accusing him of being a “coyote” and making false promises to migrants.

Meanwhile, the congresses in both countries are using the caravan as a red herring to divert attention from their activities. In Honduras’s congress last month, a motion was passed to protect the identities of arrested suspects, supposedly in order to protect the suspects’ human rights, but which journalists believe will allow officials to avoid reporting the identities of the targets of corruption investigations. In the United States, several states have passed voter suppression laws while those in office rail against the threats of illegal immigrants attempting to vote.

Immigrants are easy targets. They are exercising their human rights to move in order to improve their opportunities and safety. They are making a gigantic sacrifice—leaving citizenship behind—in the hopes of a brighter future for their families.

What makes me the saddest is the characterization of Honduras as a bleak, hopeless place, the vulnerability of communities and families who lose parents and leaders to the ambition of arriving in the north, and the indifference of church communities who don’t use their prophetic voice to speak truth to power despite the danger of sounding “too political.” There are many problems and difficulties in Honduras, but it is also a beautiful, hospitable, resourceful place to live. Many communities, some of which include Presbyterian churches, are harmed by the exodus of migrants. In Puerto Grande on the southern coast, for example, there is really not a single household that doesn’t have someone “in the north,” usually a parent or both parents, leaving children to be raised by grandparents. The person might send back $200 or $300 a month to support their family, an amount that can buy a lot in Puerto Grande, but it also creates a sense of dependence and idleness. Young people who stay behind have few job prospects, little incentive for education, and lots of opportunity to become involved in delinquent activity.

The trends of violence and economic dependence are exports from the United States. Before mass deportations of imprisoned gang members in the 1980s and 1990s, gangs existed in Honduras, but not nearly to the organized and terrifying level that they exist today. Agricultural subsidies, free trade agreements, and neo-colonial economic policies of the United States have made entrepreneurship and development driven by Hondurans virtually impossible. Unbridled corruption in the government of Honduras rewards connections to the U.S. and compliance with U.S. policies over justice and self-development of the people. It’s said, “When Heidi Fulton says ‘frog,’ Honduran officials say ‘jump.’” (Fulton is the U.S. charge d’affaires at the embassy in Tegucigalpa.)

As for the caravan itself, what few people in the U.S. understand is that there is no “line” for migrants to get into. It is next-to-impossible for Central Americans to get an immigrant visa, and the wait is upwards of 15 years long. Tourist visas are denied more often than not, and they cost $160 per application, whether they are denied or not. In order to apply for asylum, a person legally has to be physically in the country they are asking for asylum, and to apply for refugee status, they must not be physically in their home country.

The “irregular” migration road to the United States is extremely dangerous. I have met people who have been sexually assaulted, kidnapped, robbed, beaten, wounded, and maimed on the road. I have met the families of those who died. The caravan is partly timed as a political demonstration aimed at politicians in both Honduras and in the U.S., and we think that most Hondurans who joined the caravan did it not as a political statement but as an attempt at more visibility and therefore more security—safety in numbers and in media interest.

I am glad that the Presbyterian Church-USA has spoken about the question of irregular migration and the inhumane policies and rhetoric of the United States government. I am glad that Presbyterians in the United States are responding to the current caravan. I hope and pray that in the election Tuesday, the values of hospitality, compassion, and global citizenship are reflected.

NYTimes: How the Migrant Caravan Became a Trump Election Strategy

How the Migrant Caravan Became a Trump Election Strategy https://nyti.ms/2JeqRER

Far from Honduras, the White House was busy grappling with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist whose death inside a Saudi consulate had tarnished Saudi Arabia, a vital ally of the Trump administration. And with the midterm elections in the United States only weeks away, President Trump was eager to change the script.